District to try to 'sell' new high school

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the Juneau School District will promote the new high school in coming days in an effort to increase the low number of students who want to enroll there next year.

Cowan said Friday, which originally was the final deadline for accepting students' school choices, that 276 students had picked Thunder Mountain High School as their first choice. The district had planned to have 500 students enroll at the school next year.

Cowan said the district had tentatively planned to hold a public meeting March 3 to discuss the merits of the $60 million new high school. She said she wants to build enthusiasm for TMHS and try to get more students to enroll there next year. She added that the meeting would be different from previous public meetings because it would be focused solely on Thunder Mountain. The time and place for that meeting have not been determined.

"We're excited to have this meeting for folks to have another look," Cowan said.

The district asked students and their parents two weeks ago to submit a request card indicating which school they wanted to attend. Incoming 10th-, 11th- and 12th-grade students were asked to select a first and second choice between three new small learning groups, called academies, and a general studies program.

Thunder Mountain is to house two academies, and Juneau-Douglas High School, the district's current high school, will house one academy and one general studies program.

Several parents have said they don't want their children to be a part of an academy because they view it as a experimental program that may fail.

In an interview Thursday, TMHS' principal Patti Bippus said she thought it was time to "sell" Thunder Mountain to the community, adding that she was bothered that her school was being perceived by some as second class. She said some of the district's best teachers would be working there next year and the school would have a wide array of interesting classes.

She said there was little difference between the academy programs at her school and the general studies program at JDHS. The difference was in the teachers' approach, she said, and not the content being taught.

She added that similar programs to the academies had a proven, national record and the district knew what it was doing.

"I know that sometimes you go to a doctor and you're not pleased with what they tell you. But they probably know more than we do about how to treat an ailment, or deal with an injury," Bippus said. "And I guess I sometimes wish that people would trust us with that same degree of professionalism because I think that we've earned it. We work hard."

The district has planned to house incoming seniors at JDHS next year, along with a majority of incoming juniors. Incoming freshman and sophomores are to be split among the two schools. The total projected enrollment at JDHS was set at 940 students.

Based on the district's released numbers as of Friday, 1,171 total students have chosen JDHS, with about 843 students who had to pick between schools choosing it as their first choice. Cowan said there also were 162 students who were eligible to choose a school but did not.

The district's latest numbers put the ratio between the two schools at about 3:1.

After the first deadline to receive student's choices, Cowan said the ratio was about 2:1 in favor of JDHS. Later, other school officials said the ratio was closer to 4:1.

District officials have said that they will use a lottery system to determine school placement if there was not enough space to accommodate the demand for one school or program.

But Bippus said Thursday she only wanted students at her school who willingly choose it.

"I really don't want to have kids in the school that don't want to be there," Bippus said. "That's really how I feel."

• Contact reporter Alan Sudermanat 523-2268 or e-mail alan.suderman@juneauempire.com.

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